Monday, December 20, 2010


   Christmas in Mexico is a mixture of festivity and reverence.  Beginning weeks before Christmas, puestos (market stalls) are set up in the town plazas.  These puestos offer crafts of every imaginable sort, as well as foods and other seasonal items like orchids and poinsettia.  Homes are decorated, and most people attend gatherings of friends and loved ones to celebrate the season.

   The main public celebration of Christmas in Mexico is a beautiful reenactment of events leading immediately to Christ's birth.  La Posada is a religious procession in which participants reenact the search for a room at an inn by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Christ by walking from house to house with figures or images of Joseph and Mary.  Family and friends determine who will be innkeepers and who will be pilgrims.  The pilgrims do the traveling from house to house, where the innkeepers repeatedly turn them away, until they reach the house that has set up the altar and nativity scene.  There they are welcomed.  Because the pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem took 9 days, the processions start 9 days prior to Christmas.

    On Christmas Eve night, there is a midnight mass service called " La Misa Del Gallo (Rooster's Mass), where the churchgoers sing lullabies to Jesus.
   Thought some families in Mexico celebrate the story of Santa Claus, it is not the predominant custom.  The red suit is echoed however, in the poinsettia flower, which has a brilliant red star shaped bloom.  The story of the origin of the poinsettia is a beautiful one (the story of the poinsettia is one of my early December blog posts).  It is told that a young boy named Pablo was on his way to see the nativity scenes at church, but had nothing to leave as a gift by the manger.  He picked plain green branches, and took them in, amid laughter and mocking of the other children.  However, when he placed the branches near the manger, they began to bloom bright red flowers on each branch.


    Despite less emphasis on Santa, Mexican kids are given presents on Christmas day.  They are blindfolded, and they each take a turn, trying to bust the clay decorated pinata that has been filled with small candies and prizes.  The children scramble to recover as much candy as they can retrieve once the pinata has been busted open.  Further, kids who have behaved themselves receive a gift from the Three Wise Men on January 6th.


   The holidays are filled with joyful emotions and honored traditions, including the playing of songs about snowmen, St. Nick, evergreen trees, and presents wrapped up with big bows.  No matter how you celebrate the season, you'll hear these songs on the radio, T.V., at the mall, in the office, and just about anywhere music is played.
   If you think the same songs are played over and over, you're right, but if this bothers you, consider the alternative: Christmas carols were banned in England between 1649 and 1660.  Oliver Cromwell, serving as Lord Protector of Britain, believed Christmas should be solemn and also banned parties, limiting celebration to sermons and prayer services.
   Lots of holiday songs are festive, many have spiritual overtones, and all are played so often that they are familiar no  matter what your faith.  But what do you know about how these songs were created and the people who wrote them?
   There are some fascinating facts behind this memorable music.  So, toss a log on the fire, pour yourself some eggnog or hot cocoa, and sit back and relax,  as we reveal the secrets behind many of the tunes you hear during the  Christmas season.

"The Christmas Song", by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944.
   On a sweltering July day in Los Angeles, 19 year old jazz singer, Torme, worked with 23 year old Wells to create this beautiful tune.  Full of wintry images and a charming wistfulness for all the delights of the season, the song became an enormous hit by Nat King Cole the following year.  In Torme's autobiography, he says Wells wasn't trying to write lyrics but was simply jotting down ideas that would help him forget about the heat wave.

"The First Noel", Traditional 16th or 17th century carol.
   Some say this is a song with a British background while others insist it has French origins.  So far, no one has any definitive proof.  Two things are for certain: first, it's very popular if two countries are claiming it, and second, counting the title, the word "Noel" appears in the song 30 times.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", Felix Mendelssohn, Charles Wesley, and William Cummings, 1739.
   Wesley's opening line was "Hark how all the welkin rings" and he protested when a collegue changed it.  Wesley wanted a slow and solemn anthem for his song, but William Cummings set the lyrics to rousing music by Felix Mendolssohn (from a cantata about movable type by inventor Johann Gutenberg).  For his part, Mendolssohn specified that his composition only appear in a secular context, not spiritual.  So both original authors' wishes were thwarted in the creation of this glorious song.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, 1943.
   The songwriting team of Martin (music) and Blane (lyrics) worked together for 5 decades, producing Oscar and Tony nominated songs.  This hauntingly lovely tune was made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 film, "Meet Me in St. Louis".  While the song is a bittersweet gem, the original lyrics were actually darker and not to Garland's liking.  Since she was a huge star at the time, and was dating the film's director, Vincent Minnelli (she married him the following year), the changes were made.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas", Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, 1942.
   Gannon and Kent worked often together, but even with her three Academy Award nominations, nothing was as successful as this wartime song.  By getting it to Bing Crosby, they were assured of big sales even though it competed with Crosby's recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas".  The song is a perennial favorite, and appears often in films, including "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Polar Express".

"Jingle Bells", James Pierpont, 1850's.
   Starting out as a lively celebration of the Salem Street sleigh races, the song called "One-Horse Open Sleigh", made a fast transition to the more sober atmosphere of the church social and became known as "Jingle Bells".  While there are 4 verses, only the first is usually sung,  because of the lyrics in the remaining 3 verses.  A woman named Fannie Bright appears in verse two, which also features a sleigh crash.  The 3rd verse displays an anti-Samaritan laughing at a fallen sleigh driver and leaving him sprawled in a snow bank, while the final verse offers such lines as "Go it while you're young" and "Take the girls tonight".  Ah yes, just good clean mid-nineteenth century fun.

"Joy to the World", Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason, 1719 and 1822.
   The words, inspired by the 98th Psalm, were written by Watts, a British pastor, preacher, and poet.  More than a century later, banker and choral teacher Mason composed music for the piece but attributed it to Handel, presumably to make the hymn more popular.  It took another century for the hoax to be uncovered.

"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", Johnny Marks, 1949.
   Beginning as a coloring book written by advertising copywriter Robert L. May in 1939, the story of an unloved caribou triumphing over adversity was a promotional item for Montgomery Wards department stores.  May's fairy-tale was enormously popular, and became even more so when May's brother-in-law, songwriter Marks, composed music and lyrics and got the composition to singer Gene Autry.  That version sold 2 million copies the first year alone.  While most of the other reindeer names were invented by Clement Moore in his 1822 poem, "The Night Before Christmas", the hero of the May story was called Rollo.  Wait, that name was nixed by store executives, so he became Reginald.  Oops, that was also rejected, too.  Finally, May's daughter suggested Rudolf.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town", Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, 1932.
   After countless versions by stars as varied as Bruce Springsteen and Perry Como, it's hard to believe that Gillespie and Coots' song was turned down all over town because it was "a kid's song".  Even though Coots was a writer on the Eddie Cantor radio show.  Cantor at first passed on the song, only agreeing to do it at the urging of his wife.  Now it's so successful there's even a parody version by Bob Rivers (in the style of Springsteen) called "Santa Claus is Foolin' Around".

"Silent Night", Joseph Mohr and Franz X. Gruber, 1916-1818.
   There are numerous stories and fanciful speculations about the origin of this beautiful song.  Tossing aside the more lurid stories, we are left with this: the poem, "Stille Nacht", was written by Mohr, who became assistant pastor of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.  Mohr gave the poem to Gruber, the church organist, reportedly on Christmas Eve, in 1818, and was performed that same midnight.  Oddly, the first version did not involve an organ, but was arranged for two voices, guitar and choir.  Both Mohr and Gruber created manuscripts with different instrumentation at various times from 1820 to 1855.  The tune first made its way around the world as a "Tyrolean Folk Song" before gaining enough fame to be instantly recognized with its first two words or first four notes.  The Silent Night web page claims there are more than 300 translations of the song and features links to 180 versions in 121 languages.

White Christmas", Irving Berlin, 1942.
   Sometimes considered America's most popular holiday song, Berlin composed it for a movie soundtrack ("Holiday Inn", starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire).  With its quiet power and elegant longing for the simple pleasures of the past, it was the perfect song for the gloomy months during the middle of World War II.  Composer Berlin was not positive about the song when he first presented it to Crosby, but Bing's confidence was well founded.  Spawning a movie of its own (1954's "White Christmas" with Crosby and Danny Kaye), the song hit the Top 30 nearly 20 times and has now sold more than 30 million copies.  There are reportedly 500+ recorded versions of the tune in two dozen languages.


  In France, different regions of the nation celebrate Christmas differently, and even at different times.  Most provinces recognized and celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but in northern and eastern regions of France, the Christmas season is officially begun on the 6th day of December. La fete de Saint NIcolas, la fete des Rois, and la Fete de lumieres, honor Saint Nicholas, the Epiphany, and the Virgin Mary.  These holidays are special parts of the French Christmas season.
   Children in France don't hang stockings by the chimney, they place their shoes in front of the fireplace for Pere Noel to fill with gifts. Candy, fruits and nuts, and toys are also hung on the tree Christmas Eve night.  Pere Fouettard, who is basically Santa's Counterpart, gives out spankings to naughty boys and girls.

  In 1962, France passed a law requiring all letters written to Pere Noel,  to receive a response, so Santa sends each child a postcard acknowledging their letter and wishing them a happy holiday season.
   La Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve is an important part of Christmas for many families, and is followed by a grand feast.  This feast is called le Revellion is meant to be a symbolic awakening to the glory and miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.  Many restaurants and cafes stay open all night to serve this meal.  Each French region has it's own traditional menu ranging from turkey, goose, and chicken to a dish similar to white pudding, called boudin blanc.
   Traditional dessert foods include la buche de Noel ( Yule log cake made with chocolate and chestnuts), le pain calendeau (Christmas loaf, which is shared with a less fortunate person), and la Galette des Rois (round cake that is cut and handed out by a child hiding under the table.  There is a charm hidden inside, and whoever finds it is King or Queen during the celebration of Epiphany.

   The sapin de Noel (or Christmas Tree) is a similar traditional decoration in homes and businesses, as well as town squares.  Lights and candles are common, but candles are used more in France than in America, to honor the Virgin Mary.  After the Awakening, it is customary to leave a candle burning in case Mary should pass by.
   Another important aspect of French Christmas celebrations is the creche (nativity scene) displayed in churches and homes.  Living nativity's are commonly performed to remind those in attendance that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and the miracles surrounding that birth.

   For those looking to incorporate international Christmas traditions into your family celebrations, consider downloading and playing some French Christmas carols.  Perhaps this year, your family can leave a candle burning in case Mary wanders by, or attend a living nativity offered by a local church.  Even playing some French carols during dinner might make you feel like you are in a decorated French cathedral, lit by candlelight. "Joyeaux Noel"(Merry Christmas)!